Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscar the Grouch

Break out the tuxedo. Slither into that designer dress. Rent a limo.

Shut down the streets. Put up the bleachers. Roll out the red carpet. Alert the media.

It’s Academy Awards time, that magical season when the move industry salutes itself for producing a handful of notable films out of the hundreds of clunkers that befoul the screen each year.

It’s when the entertainment profession, which has had a few thousand years to practice putting on a really good show, rolls out a spectacle that falls somewhat short of a high school production of “Our Town.”

It’s a time when films like “The Sound of Music” beat out “Doctor Zhivago” for best picture. Or “Forest Gump” wins over “The Shawshank Redemption.” Or movies like “The Artist” prove that cute dogs can elevate mediocrity to Oscar status.

We’re supposed to take this seriously?

So when they pass out the Oscars tonight, I’ll be curled up with a good book. Or maybe watching a basketball game.
Either option will allow me to miss the rambling, incomprehensible acceptance speeches made by winners who do their best acting by appearing surprised and humbled.

I’ll also miss an evening of air kisses and disingenuous platitudes in a ceremony that conveys all the warmth and emotion of a Walmart colonoscopy.

None of which is new, of course. Writing about the Oscars a decade ago, David Foster Wallace said, "The truth is that there's no more real joy about it all anymore. Worse, there seems to be this enormous unspoken conspiracy where we all pretend that there's still joy."

I understand this may be heresy. No matter where you live in Southern California, you are resident of the vast fantasy land that is Hollywood and duty bound to love, honor and obey “the industry.”

God knows I’ve tried. Heck, I was born in Hollywood. And I have been watching the Academy Awards since Bob Hope was the host. Come to think of it, the ratings have declined since Hope mastered the ceremonies.

I’ll cut the academy some slack. There aren’t a lot of options when you’re staging an awards show. It’s like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: there’s pretty much only one way to make it.

On Oscar night, however, there’s more creativity gathered in one room since, to paraphrase a famous statement, Walt Disney dined alone. Why not harness that genius?

The producers let their imaginations run wild on a few occasions in the past. In 1989, they had no host at all, an experiment that led to what is perceived by many as the worst Oscar telecast of all time. If that’s not bad enough, the opening number featured a duet between non-singer Rob Lowe and an actress playing Snow White .

Donald Duck co-hosted the show in 1958. Fortunately, Hope, David Niven and Jimmy Stewart were on hand to help save the day.

Two years ago, someone got the bright idea to turn the hosting duties over to James Franco and Ann Hathaway. It wasn’t an experiment so much as it was a desperate attempt by the academy to attract younger viewers. It didn’t work. The evening had all the charm of a bouncer at a beer joint.

I’m no impresario, no producer, no creative force. But this isn’t rockets science, either.

So try this: First, cut the show to two hours. Period. Start by limiting the acceptance speeches to the top categories: actor, actress, director and best movie. Nobody wants to hear the third assistant production designer thank his accountant.

Forget the documentary short, the short film or any other category with the word “short” in it. Dump the sound editing award. Nobody understands what it is anyway.

Get rid of makeup and hairstyling. As one wag once wrote when “Driving Miss Daisy” won in this category, it was only noteworthy if “Jessica Tandy was in fact 20 years old and Morgan Freeman was actually white.”

Next, get a host who is witty but won’t spend an inordinate amount of time trying to extract laughs from an audience that didn’t come to see him or her.

Dump the dance numbers. If I want to see dance, I’ll go to the ballet.

Cut the number of best picture nominees back to five. Ten dilutes the value of a nomination. And adds to the insufferable length of the broadcast.

Do this and I might just tune in.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Believe It or Not

A TV reporter in Montgomery, Alabama, sprung into action recently after reading that Alabama was widely perceived as misguided, intolerant and poorly educated, according to a global public relations firm that cited focus groups and surveys.

The firm, the story said, strongly encouraged U.S. officials to downplay its connections with the state and to avoid being seen in any of its cities.

Sensing something was amiss, the TV reporter called the firm and was informed that the article was fictitious, a fact that she promptly and breathlessly reported to her viewers.

The problem is the article appeared in the Onion, a satirical newspaper of some renown. All of the stories that appear in the Onion are fictitious and have been since it was founded some 25 years ago by a bunch of college kids in Wisconsin.


Fast forward a week. A blogger whose work appears in the Washington Post, citing an Internet report, disclosed that Sarah Palin had signed on as a contributor to the Arab-owned Al Jazeera American News network.

"As you all know, I'm not a big fan of newspapers, journalists, news anchors and the liberal media in general," Palin allegedly told the Daily Currant. "But I met with the folks at Al-Jazeera and they told me they reach millions of devoutly religious people who don't watch CBS or CNN. That tells me they don't have a liberal bias."

Alas, the Daily Currant piece cited by the blogger was satirical. As is everything they publish.

Hello, Washington Post? Get me rewrite.

Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. It seems satire being presented as actual news has become a full-blown phenomenon, thanks in no small part to the advent of bloggers, tweeters and the like.

Many apparently lack the critical thinking skills to assess what they are reading. Others simply don't understand an art form that was practiced by Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain.

Even more disturbing is that the higher the story ranks on the outrage scale, the more people are willing to believe it. That may be because so many spend their lives in a state of perpetual angst about what they see as the decline and fall of civilization that nothing seems too far fetched for them to believe.

Why else would people believe stuff like this:

The Daily Currant posted an interview that former Congressman Todd Akin reportedly in which he said that "female breast milk - when fed directly to an adult homosexual male daily for at least four weeks - has a 94% chance of permanently curing homosexual perversions."

Since Akin had once actually said that female victims of "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant, the breast milk story was presumed to be true and spread across the Internet like wildfire.

An Onion article on Harry Potter inciting children to practice witchcraft was the subject of a widely forwarded email to the moms of the world. In November 2010, the Fox Nation website, a part of the Fox News network, presented as fact an Onion article about President Barack Obama writing a rambling 75,000 word e-mail complaining about America.

In February 2012, Congressman John Fleming, R-Louisiana, posted a link to an Onion article on his Facebook page about an $8 billion "Abortionplex" opened by Planned Parenthood.

China's People's Daily quoted as true a satirical article calling Kim Jong-un of North Korea the "sexiest man alive."

The Daily Currant in November published a satirical article claiming that former president George W. Bush had accidentally voted for Barack Obama because he couldn't figure out how to properly use his voting machine. It was reported as fact by news outlets in Texas.

And several overseas papers reported as fact a satirical piece that claimed Congress was threatening to leave Washington, D.C., unless the government built a new Capitol with a retractable dome.

Funny stuff. But it raises a serious issue: Are the lines between satire and legitimate journalism becoming increasingly blurred? Are people making decisions based on whoopie cushion reportage? Do we believe anything that pops us on our computers or TV screens?

The answer appears to be "yes."

When Time magazine recently asked readers to identify "the most trusted newsperson in America," John Stewart of Comedy Central's satirical "Daily Show" was the runaway winner.

That matched an earlier survey by the Pew Center in which Stewart tied Brian Williams, Tom Browkaw, Dan Rather and Anderson Cooper as the journalist respondents most admire.

Stewart is a remarkable wit. And, yes, his comedic commentary is often spot on.

But if his shtick is becoming the preferred source of information to a new generation of Americans, the joke is on us.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Occult Hand and Other Oddities

For years, the prevailing image of a reporter has been that of a fast-talking guy nicknamed “Scoop” who has a press credential stuck in his Fedora, a cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth and a pint of Old Inspiration stuck in his back pocket.

The reality is something less colorful. Journalists for the most part are dedicated hard-working men and women who take their role as public watchdogs very seriously.

That does not, however, prevent them from having a whimsical, sometimes wicked sense of humor.

I offer in evidence a group called the Order of the Occult Hand, purveyors of an inside joke that at one time spread like wildfire through the pages of America’s newspapers.

According to a report on the Poynter website, the phrase was introduced by Joseph Flanders, a police reporter of the Charlotte News, who in the fall of 1965 reported on a millworker who was shot by his own family when he came back home late at night. He wrote: “It was as if an occult hand had reached down from above and moved the players like pawns upon some giant chessboard.”

Several of his colleagues, amused by this pungent prose, vowed to get the phrase into the paper as much as possible. Before they knew it, the Occult Hand had gripped the imagination of dozens of reporters:

The Los Angeles Times: "Then it was as if an occult hand had made a mystical sign..." and "It was as if an occult hand had passed over Nick Mancuso's face, momentarily transforming him into Tennessee Williams" and “It was as if an occult hand had substituted an alternate universe..."

The Boston Globe: “…it is as if Sabrina were saved by an occult hand, as she turned up safe and sound” and and "If a president of Harvard ever intervenes in something like a promotion or a course outline, it is well disguised, the work of an occult hand."

The Associated Press: “When he plays the blues, it is as if some occult hand is guiding his hand over the guitar, channeling the essence of the blues through Clapton" and “It is as if an occult hand placed Calvino in our country so we could appreciate our own eccentricities."

The Minneapolis Star Tribune: "It was as if an occult hand had reached down and given the nation's television critics a pinch on the tush."

The Bangkok Post: "Finally, as if by an occult hand, there it was out on the table.”

Clearly, this was no coincidence.

But at some point, many of those involved grew weary of the game. And so it was announced that the Order had chosen a new secret phrase at an annual editorial writers' convention and resumed a stealth operation.

I was witness to a similar sort of mischief when I first went to work at the Los Angeles Times. I was on the features copy desk which, among other duties, handled a lot of stories about the comings and goings of high society.

According to local lore, a reporter was reading a government job publication one day which included an opening for a “flange welder.” In a classic example of mass psychosis, her colleagues agreed that it sounded like an offbeat name. Someone seized the moment, and it started appearing in the Times society stories amid the endless lists of party guests.

But not as Flange Welder. That was too déclassé. He was now Phlange Welder IV.

Call it sophomoric humor or boredom or a protest against pandering to the privileged. Whatever the case, Mr. Welder soon was attending all the finest events and his international travels were reported in detail.

The man who didn’t exist was seen everywhere.

But that wasn’t the half of it. He was reported to be a guest conductor for a major symphony orchestra, named as principal baritone in an opera, listed as a founding patron of the Music Center and as a passenger on the final voyage of the Queen Mary. He even had a bylined story that appeared in the Times.

A Phlange Welder Foundation was founded which contributed money to the Times annual camp fund for underprivileged children.

According to one report, this went on for some 20 years. It ended when the Times publisher, Otis Chandler, threatened anyone perpetuating the myth of Phlange Welder with dismissal.

But not before Ted Sell, a distinguished reporter in the Times Washington bureau, filed an analytical and thoughtful story about the Vietnam war. The first letter of the first seven paragraphs spelled out “Phlange.”

Shortly afterwards, Mr. Welder disappeared. As though swept away by a sinister hand.